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Cryptogram, New York

In Cryptogram, John struggles throughout the play to make sense of the world—a task that is exacerbated early on by a lack of sleep that leaves him teetering on the edges of order and chaos, wakefulness and dreaminess, sanity and delusion—the adults in the room are stuck in the rawness of real time, place, and action.

By David Mamet
Westside Theatre/Upstairs,
New York. 28 May 1995.

After its world premiere at the Ambassadors Theatre, London (June 1994) and its American premiere at the C. Walsh Theater, Boston (February 1995), Mamet's fascinating The Cryptogram opened in New York (April 1995) to nearly unanimous rave reviews and subsequent accolades, including the 1995 Obie Award for Best Play. In the New York production, John Lee Beatty's stark set design is as sparse as the play's elliptical, clipped language: a worn couch, a stuffed chair and ottoman, and an area rug, all positioned conspicuously beneath a looming, steep staircase that dominates the surroundings upstage center. The staircase links the two worlds of the play—the "reality" bound living room space, and the elevated world of the unseen attic and bedrooms, upstairs spaces that, at least in this staging, are meant to exist beyond the house/theatre, beyond the sight of one's opened eyes.

While the staircase gets much use during the show, its sole traveler is John (played by Shelton Dane), a ten year-old boy who is unable to sleep, first on the night before his long awaited camping trip with his (absent) father, Bobby (scene 1), and on the following evening, after his father's failure to arrive (scene 2). As directed by the playwright, John's descent and ascent on the staircase focus the production's actual and metaphorical resonances. One cannot help but be struck by the poignancy of the young boy's inability to sleep as he moves away from or toward the bright, beckoning lights (designed by Dennis Parichy) at the top of the stairs, a movement that suggests the fluidity between states of consciousness and unconsciousness. Acting as "witnesses" to the boy's activity, to his "story," Donny (John's mother, played by Felicity Huffman) and Del (a longtime friend of Donny and Bobby's, played by Ed Begley, Jr.) courteously engage the little fellow in conversation, responding to his overtired mind's inquiries that leap from one daunting topic to the next: thought, memory, meaning, existence, truth, betrayal, and death. Generally, the adults patiently entertain John's remarks, rarely undercutting his right to answers despite the child's years or their wish, perhaps, to be evasive or silent.

Listening to the three lonely characters who occupy this living room in 1959—a child, a woman, and a homosexual (Del is revealed to be gay during scene 3, which occurs one month after the previous scene), I recalled Richard Roma's tirade against Williamson in the final moments in Mamet's earlier Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), after Williamson breaks the male codes that sustain not only the insular power structure of the real estate business but the culture at large. Roma berates his peer by calling him a "stupid fucking cunt," a "fairy," and a "fucking child." To align Williamson with women, homosexuals, and children is, according to Roma, the worst humiliation for a (white) male. In The Cryptogram, the white straight male (Bobby) is absent, leaving three otherwise marginalized characters (who are usually depicted as such in Mamet's other play worlds) in the dramatic space to create their own meaning. Despite his absence, however, Bobby deeply influences that meaning. Each character expects something from Bobby over the course of the three scenes: John anticipates that his father will take him on a camping trip; Donny assumes, foolishly it turns out, that her husband is a faithful partner in marriage; and Del assumes, wrongly of course, that his past generosity to allow Bobby to use his apartment for sexual liaisons with other women (without Donny's knowledge) will somehow bond him with the manipulative straight "friend" without damaging his relationship with Donny. Each character, as time passes, must deal with the mysteries that either initiate or inform his or her sense of loss and betrayal—prompted by Bobby's offstage (inactions—, mysteries that must be confronted if not penetrated in order for one to know how to go on...truthfully and lovingly.

As John struggles throughout the play to make sense of the world—a task that is exacerbated early on by a lack of sleep that leaves him teetering on the edges of order and chaos, wakefulness and dreaminess, sanity and delusion—the adults in the room are stuck in the rawness of real time, place, and action. Their world appears to be relentlessly subjected to the pains and truths of an "awakened" life, one that is denied any kind of meaningful relief from life's disappointments and subsequent challenges. It is a life that even John cannot escape, as he stays in the room with his adult "family" for much of the play's final scene.

While finely tuned ensemble work is masterfully displayed in this production, Felicity Huffman, in an Obie Award-winning performance, is mesmerizing and memorable as Donny. With eyelids positioned somewhere between sleeping and waking, and with a tone of voice that is understanding yet urgent, especially when she is obviously strained by her son's insomnia and relentless questions, Ms. Huffman creates a pulsating, assured stage presence. In Huffman's performance, Donny moves toward the center of Mamet's evolving portraiture of women characters who, in his hands, are still struggling to speak in voices of their own. For this reason, I find the play to be very much Donny's "story." When faced with his heartbreaking betrayal of their friendship, Donny asks outrightly of Del the hard questions that demand strength of backbone and person.

Yet, in a glaring choice of language, the playwright assigns to Donny, at the height of her emotional intensity, the words he usually reserves for the (now absent) straight white male. As Donny humiliates (the apparently spineless) Del by screaming at him and shaming him as a "faggot," a "queer," and a "fairy," echoes of Richard Roma's voice fill the air, in the naming that is meant deliberately to diminish, to dominate and to marginalize the other. Curiously, Mamet's recognizable canonical code of maleness remains intact, here in the words of a female character. It is the one conspicuous feature— now, a type of Mametian dramaturgical "certainty"—that somehow reduces a captivating, infinitely yielding new work that otherwise values the voices of others—their faults and all—without initially (although, sadly noted, finally) marking them as "other."

Robert Vorlicky
Marymount Manhattan College